Thursday, December 4, 2008

Scouting the FA Closers

As you probably know by now, Cleveland is shopping for a closer this off-season. The Tribe is looking to either sign or trade for an established closer, although their budget is not entirely clear. I felt that the best combination of reliability, experience, and value on the free agent market was Trevor Hoffman, which you can read about here. Cleveland supposedly talked with Hoffman, Fuentes, Rodriguez, and Jason Isringhausen. I was originally going to do a list of free agents and trade targets, but I think I’ll just round out the free agents Cleveland has an interest in and pick up on any trade rumors after the winter meetings (in case you were wondering, Matt Capps is at the top of my wish-list on that front).

2.) Kerry Wood

2008 Team: Cubs
Age: 31
Previous Contract: 1 yr / $4.2 mil (2008), plus up to $3.45 mil for performance bonuses

Player SV (%) IP ERA WHIP ERA+ H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
K. Wood 34 (85.0%) 66.1 3.26 1.09 137 7.33 2.44 11.40 4.67

As much as I hyped up Trevor Hoffman earlier, I think I’d be pretty happy if the team went with Kerry Wood instead. Wood is an interesting option considering he has 10 MLB seasons under his belt, but just completed his first as a closer. After logging 174, 213, and 211 innings as a starter from 2001 to 2003, Wood struggled to stay healthy. Between 2004 and 2006, Wood suffered from an array of injuries and underwent surgery on his knee and rotator cuff. The Cubs finally decided to try and conserve Wood's electric arm by converting him to a reliever in 2007. The relief stint got off to a rough start as Wood spent most of the season battling elbow issues (he did not return to Chicago until August). Wood expressed a strong preference to stay in Chicago, taking an incentives based $4.2 million dollar contract after filing for free agency after the 2007 season.

Wood would have been the perfect Shapiro project a year ago; battered by injuries with a high payoff when healthy. Wood's 2008 run as the Cubs closer jump-started the former ace's career and probably put him in line for a hefty raise. Wood officially hit the open market Monday after the Cubs declined to offer him arbitration. The Cubs have made it clear they are moving on without Wood, even though he has offered to take a one year deal to stay with the team. Chicago balked at Wood's supposed $9+ million salary and have already anointed Carlos Marmol as closer.

Wood's value significantly increased after 2008 due to his success as closer and the fact that he was able to stay healthy for the entire season. The only major setback for Wood was in July when he suffered from a blister on his right index finger and was placed on the 15-day DL. Wood isn't exactly a veteran closer, but he is a veteran starter. He has already proven that he has the mentality to handle the closer role and is a seasoned playoff pitcher. His 85.0% save percentage last year was comparable to elite closers like Joe Nathan (86.6%) and B.J. Ryan (88.8%).

Despite owning the lowest save percentage and highest ERA between Fuentes and Rodriguez, I would take Wood if all I had to go by were the numbers. Wood’s ERA was inflated by a few bad outings, particularly in July when he was probably trying to work around a blister on one of his throwing fingers. Other than the three isolated appearances where he gave up three runs and a bad stretch in September where he surrendered 7 runs in 3.1 innings, Wood was very reliable. He may have blown six saves, but three of those came before May 2. After that, all Wood did was rack up consecutive saves.

Wood’s H/9 rate was slightly higher than K-Rod and Fuentes, but Wood’s outstanding combination of a 2.44 BB/9 rate and 11.40 K/9 rate really puts him ahead of the competition. Even though he gave up more hits, Wood had the best WHIP, K/BB ratio, and HR/9 rate of the three. Wood’s combination of strikeouts and precision place him ahead of pack in terms of overall pitching ability and I feel that his numbers are fairly sustainable. Several stats seem likely to regress based strictly on Wood’s career totals, although I’m not sure it’s fair to directly compare his time as a starter to that as a reliever. If you consider Wood’s ability as a starter and remove all the pitfalls of starting (late inning fatigue, loss of focus, multiple ABs per batter, etc.) it seems very reasonable to think that Wood would see a significant improvement in performance if all of his effort were distilled down to just one or two innings per outing.

If Wood can stay healthy this season, there’s a strong chance he’ll be a lights-out closer.

While I'm not sure about the exact amount, I think his price per year will fall between Fuentes and Hoffman. I don't see him giving other teams the option of a one year deal like he offered to Chicago (that was motivated more by his own desire to stay in Chicago than anything else). If I were Wood's agent I would advise him to seek a three to four year deal given that this is his first real venture as a free agent and his history of injury. The 31 year old Wood may not have another shot at a big, multi-year contract depending on how his body holds up. It's not clear how heavily teams are weighing Wood's prior injuries (no pun intended), but if other GMs hesitate to sign him to three or four years Cleveland may step in with the next best thing.

Considering how important it is that Cleveland's closer be a consistent presence (read, healthy) this season, I'm not sure Wood is the best choice for Cleveland. Still, K-Rod has been deflecting rumors about the condition of his arm this off-season, while Trevor Hoffman is 41 years old. It’s tough to tell where Cleveland would rank Wood in terms of injury risk (you can bet someone is poring over his latest physical and 2008 tapes though). Personally, I think I’d take a chance on Wood if he could be had for a reasonable contract.

I could see Cleveland offering a two year guaranteed contract at $6-8 million per year, plus a team option, with another $2-3 million in incentives based on appearances and DL stints. Again, the market will likely dictate whether Wood ends up considering anything less than three years at $9-10 million per. Texas is rumored to be pretty high on Wood and has a history of burning money in free agency, so expect some stiff competition to drown out concerns about Wood's past injuries.

3.) Brian Fuentes

2008 Team: Colorado
Age: 33
Previous Contract: 1 yr / $5.05 mil (2008)

Player SV (%) IP ERA WHIP ERA+ H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
B. Fuentes 30 (88.2%) 62.2 2.73 1.10 168 6.75 3.16 11.78 3.73

Fuentes appears to be the Mets’ primary target right now. Based on Fuentes' scheduled meeting with the Mets in Vegas and how desperate New York is for a closer to replace the ailing Billy Wagner, I'd say Fuentes will be off the market before the Winter Meetings conclude. While Cleveland did express an interest in Fuentes, I don't see them getting into a bidding war with the Mets (never a good idea).

Fuentes managed to have the best season of his career in 2008 despite logging over half his innings in the Major’s third best hitters park (Coors Field). Below are his home/away splits for the past three seasons:

Brian Fuentes 2008 Season Splits

Home 2006 34.2 3.63 1.21 .410 4.44

2007 31.1 1.72 0.83 .292 3.00

2008 33.1 3.51 1.29 .357 4.80

Away 2006 30.2 3.23 1.11 .324 1.94

2007 30.0 4.50 1.43 .350 2.13

2008 29.1 1.84 0.89 .210 3.40

Finding success in Colorado as a pitcher is no easy task. You either face a thin-aired, slugger’s paradise at home or a foreign, hostile environment on the road. I guess it’s not that surprising that Fuentes’ home and away splits tend to fluctuate each year. I expected his ERA and SLGA to heavily favor his time at Coors, but if you take the past three seasons as a whole, there seems to be a rough equilibrium. In 2006, Fuentes posted similar numbers at home (3.63 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) and away (3.23 ERA, 1.11 WHIP). In 2007, he dominated batters at home (1.72 ERA, 0.83 WHIP), but got roughed up to the tune of a 4.50 ERA and 1.43 WHIP on the road. In his walk year, the splits reversed: stellar away (1.84 ERA, 0.89 WHIP), significantly less so at home (3.51 ERA, 1.29 WHIP).

Even Fuentes’ slugging against (SLGA) follows this pattern, although you’d expect opposing batters to consistently collect more extra base hits against him at Coors Field than in most other stadiums.

Fuentes’ overall performance as Colorado’s closer has been pretty solid, averaging 62.8 IP, 3.08 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 155 ERA+ over the past three seasons (his 78.7 save percentage represents some really shaky stretches in ’06 and ’07 though). The main thing I was curious about was if Fuentes would see a significant improvement in performance once he got away from Coors Field. Based on a rough analysis of his splits, I don’t think he’ll see any major improvements in the future, at least not due to a change of address. I don’t see Fuentes’ value slipping very much, but his 2008 season will probably go down as a career year for him.

Again, as long as his contract remains reasonable (unlikely) then Fuentes will provide an experienced, quality arm, but probably won’t meet the Mets’ expectations as closer based on his inability to dominate in high leverage situations on a consistent basis (career 80.0 SV%)

4.) Francisco Rodriguez

2008 Team: Anaheim
Age: 26
Previous Contract: 1 yr / $10 mil (2008)

Player SV (%) IP ERA WHIP ERA+ H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
F. Rodriguez 62 (89.8%) 68.1 2.24 1.29 198 7.11 4.48 10.14 2.26

I’m probably going to get torched for ranking Rodriguez near the bottom...oh well (not that my made-up “ranking” system ever meant anything).

The market seems to have cooled on Rodriguez and his record 62 saves. At one point, Rodriguez was seeking Mariano Rivera money (you know, 1.40 ERA, .66 WHIP, 39 saves for the umpteenth time in his career…that Rivera), or around $15 million a year on a long term contract. Amazingly, no one appears to have taken the bait and the hype surrounding Rodriguez is dim heading into the Winter Meetings.

Except for a 2.24 ERA and 62 saves, Rodriguez was only average in a direct comparison to Wood, Fuentes, and Hoffman. Rodriguez actually had the worst WHIP and K/BB ratio, which doesn’t make sense when paired with his sparkling ERA. At first glance, it looks like Rodriguez had quite a bit of luck on his side to allow so many baserunners with minimal damage. Let’s peel back another layer here:

2008 Closer FIPs

B. Fuentes: 2.24
K. Wood: 2.32
F. Rodriguez: 3.22
T. Hoffman: 3.99

Rodriguez’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is nearly a full point higher than Wood and Fuentes, which suggests he was getting a significant boost from his team’s defense and other factors beside his performance on the mound. Would Rodriguez be able to duplicate his 89.8 save percentage without improving his WHIP and BB/9 rate next season? Probably not.

Speaking of walks, 2008 marks the second consecutive season Rodriguez has seen his BB/9, H/9, and HR/9 rates rise, while his K/9 rate dropped. The rising walk rates and apparent decline in control may be a sign of some early wear and tear in Rodriguez’s throwing arm. Regardless of why these issues are popping up for the 26 year old flamethrower, allowing an exponential amount of baserunners and taters each year is going to catch up with him at some point (probably sooner than later if his K rate fails to rebound).

Another issue that may be causing reluctance amongst GMs is Rodriguez’s declining velocity. I wouldn’t have thought to look it up before (the kid throws hard), but Rodriguez has lost at least a MPH off his fastball every year since 2006. Rodriguez threw his heater 56% of the time with an average speed of 94.8 MPH. In 2008, he had cut back on his fastball usage by 5.3% and had an average speed of 91.9 MPH. The same can be said of his slider, which lost 4.6 MPH since 2006. To compensate, Rodriguez threw nearly twice as many changeups in 2008 as he had in the past.

Normally, a 26 year old whose fastball is his bread and butter wouldn’t have to compensate for lost velocity by mixing in a new pitch. It’s not the combination of the pitches so much as the timing (plus the declining K/BB rate). If I were talking to K-Rod’s agent about a long-term deal, that would be a major point of concern for me.

So why am I digging into Rodriguez when there are plenty of other flawed closers on the market? Well, I felt that Rodriguez was severely overrated in 2008 (Cy Young, are you kidding me?) and find it interesting how his breaking the saves record seemed to overshadow a few red flags (like the persistent drop in velocity). Anaheim has never been afraid to spend to retain a player. You have to wonder, what did they see that caused them to pass on Rodriguez?

Basically, I feel sorry for the team that signs Rodriguez to a four or five year deal because I think they’ll be lucky to get two good years out of him. Then again, maybe the abundance of closers and lack of spare change will see some GMs (not to name anybo-Sabean) show a bit of restraint this off-season.

No matter how scouts are interpreting the above trends, Rodriguez is one of the most important free agents this winter (Sabathia and Teixeira are the others), since he will set the precedent for every reliever’s contract after him.

And no, I don’t think Cleveland will make him a serious offer.

5.) Jason Isringhausen

2008 Team: St. Louis
Age: 35
Previous Contract: 3 yrs / $25.75 mil (2005-07), plus $8 mil club option (2008)

Player SV (%) IP ERA WHIP ERA+ H/9 BB/9 K/9 K/BB
Isringhausen 12 (41.67%) 42.2 5.70 1.64 78 10.12 4.64 7.59 1.64

After seeing his name on the list of pitchers Cleveland is talking to, I was forced to take a closer look at Izzy. Overall, I think a return to form is a definite possibility for Isringhausen. I wouldn’t bet the bullpen on it, but certainly possible. That said, I hope Shapiro views Isringhausen as a sort of last resort (including trades) in case the market goes totally nuts or something.

Isringhausen is currently rehabbing from September elbow surgery to repair a torn tendon in his throwing arm. He should be 100% healthy by the time Spring Training arrives. The veteran closer will have plenty of motivation after suffering through his worst season since 1999 when he was traded from the Mets to the Athletics mid-season. His 2008 campaign was derailed by a series of injuries including a hand laceration (kids, don't punch a tv after you blow a save; water coolers are a much cheaper alternative), knee strain, tendonitis, and the torn tendon. To add insult to injury, Izzy had his closer status revoked (twice). Isringhausen probably would have retired if he had reached his goal of 300 saves last season (he needs seven more).

I'm convinced Isringhausen's ugly season can be blamed solely on his injuries and he could be a fairly productive closer in 2009. The trouble is, most of Isringhausen's past struggles were caused by injury issues. He got off to a terrible start in 2006 as well. After an erratic season, he finally succumbed to a hip injury in early September and was left off the Cardinal's post season roster (Adam Wainwright closed out the World Series victory). A newly repaired Isringhausen went on to have a career year in 2007, posting a 2.48 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 32 saves (93.7%) in 65.1 IP. Over his age 31-34 seasons (2004-2007), Isringhausen averaged 64.4 IP, 162 ERA+, 1.19 WHIP, 2.07 K/BB ratio, and an 84.8 save percentage (a couple good seasons, one great one, and one with a major injury, seems about right). At worst, Isringhausen is a top 15 closer (actually, at worst he's a top 15 closer on the DL) and at best he's a top 5. Which Izzy is going to show up in 2009? No idea.

Isringhausen is kind of like a watered down Kerry Wood (minus the filthy K rate): when he's healthy he can be very productive, but the risk of injury tends to run high. However, if I had to choose one injury prone closer over another, Wood is the obvious choice. One benefit of signing Isringhausen is that he'll probably have one of the friendliest free agent contracts of 2009. After expressing his desire to pitch again Isringhausen described his next contract as an "incentive-based thing." Izzy would make sense as a depth signing, but not as the full-time closer. Since he has clearly stated he wants to close, Isringhausen won't be signing with Cleveland.

All contract information was taken from Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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